I suspect everyone is getting sick of this and Bob, David, and others are well covering the notable press conference by the assorted Cambridge Police unions and their assorted lawyers, but there was one moment that really deserves extra attention and demands to be corrected. I’ll try to stay focused…towards the end, Alan McDonald, lawyer for one of the unions, was chastising President Obama for putting this event, and people’s reaction to it, in the context of a history of maltreatment by minorities at the hands of law enforcement. Attorney McDonald stated that while a history like that “was true in some localities, it isn’t true in Cambridge” and continued that it was “inappropriate” for the President to draw such a connection.
While much about this event is open to debate, a very quick search of old newspaper article reveals that on the question of race and the Cambridge PD, Attorney McDonald is either woefully uninformed or lying.
One truly bizarre happening immediately jumps out of the archives. Less than ten years ago, Cambridge PD was actually teaching it’s recruits that people who like spicy foods, like Mexicans, or handle a lot of produce, like Mexicans, have an increased tolerance for pepper spray. Sorry, THIS IS NOT A JOKE, from the Globe, August 13 1999:
CAMBRIDGE — Many doctors and law enforcement specialists say it sounds crazy. Nonetheless, police here assert that they instruct their officers that a potent anticrime weapon, pepper spray, is less effective against Mexican-Americans, Cajuns, and other ethnic groups, because of their fondness for spicy foods.
Without supporting scientific data, Cambridge officers are instructed that some minority group members and individuals who are exposed at an early age to hot peppers, either in diet or in the fields or in food processing plants, develop a tolerance to pepper spray, which is used by police to temporarily incapacitate belligerents.
Frank Pasquarello, a spokesman for the Cambridge Police, said he saw nothing wrong with presenting such information, which he said was discussed by a Cambridge Police Department instructor at annual training sessions at the Cambridge Police Academy in a professional, uninflammatory manner.
The training programs are taught by Cambridge Police Officer Frank Gutoski.
Gutoski, who could not be reached by the Globe, told the weekly that people who worked in produce departments, processing plants, or who handled cayenne peppers regularly were less susceptible to the effects of pepper spray.
This really is almost funny, and I say almost because it wouldn’t be funny if you were a random Hispanic (or Cajun or Greek) person getting a triple dose of pepper spray, because the Cambridge PD officer had been taught one would not have the usual effect. Moving on….
What’s definitely not funny is an actual pattern (not just one isolated incident) of minority police officers getting the letters KKK scrawled across their lockers. From the Globe July 29, 1982:
The internal affairs unit of the Cambridge Police Department is trying to find out who painted the letters “KKK” on the lockers of black policemen in the Central Square station.
The incident, which occurred July 1, involved the lockers of five black patrolmen and one detective of Portuguese descent, a police spokesman said.
The lockers have numbers on them but no names, indicating the person who painted the racial epithets knew whose lockers they were.
And from the Globe August 3, 1982:
A group of black Cambridge policemen, saying they were not satisfied with the progress of a departmental investigation into a racial incident at the police station, called yesterday for an independent investigation.
The group, the Cambridge Afro-American Police Assn., called a press conference a month after someone painted the letters “KKK” on the lockers of five patrolmen, four of them black, in the Central Square station.
Also at yesterday’s conference were two representatives from the US Justice Department’s Community Relations Service. They said at this point they were expressing interest in the incident and had not yet taken any formal action.
Henry Owens, a Cambridge lawyer representing the black policemen, spoke for the group saying, “A crime has been committed and over 30 days have gone by and nothing has been done about it.”
Owens said the black policemen feel they have no say in the administration or the policies of the department. He pointed out that in a department of more than 250 members there are no black captains or lieutenants and only three out of 30 sergeants.
Edward McClure of the Justice Department said his unit had become involved because of possible Ku Klux Klan activities. He said no action was being taken at the moment but if any group asked the US Attorney to investigate the matter he would be “receptive” to such a request.
Last week, Capt. Cusack said he did not believe there was serious racial problems in the department and a spokesman said he believed the locker painting was a prank.
Prank?!? Seriously? That “prank” is so funny that someone else pulled the same classic ten years later. The Cambridge PD locker room is/was just chock full of jokesters, from the Globe March 8, 1990:
Two Cambridge police officers have filed complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination charging that city officials and the chief of police discriminated against them because they are black.
The officers also maintain they have been called derogatory names and that their authority has been countermanded and challenged by white officers. One complaint states that the initials of the Ku Klux Klan were painted on lockers assigned to black officers.
Another 1990 Globe article details the settlement of federal civil rights suit filed by 5 minority officers, and provided probably the most disturbing detail yet in this short history of the Cambridge PD and race. From the Globe May 31, 1990:
A settlement of a $15 million bias suit brought against the Cambridge Police Department by black officers has led to the establishment of a police-civilian committee, described as unprecedented in Massachusetts, for improving race relations among officers and between police and residents.
Antidiscrimination activists yesterday hailed the settlement as a creative, progressive response to longstanding complaints from black officers. It provides $23,500 in compensation to two Cambridge officers, one of whom will receive tuition money for advanced law-enforcement classes and counseling to help her advance her career. It also mandates new antibias policies.
The suit, brought 2 1/2 years ago by five officers and the Cambridge Afro-American Police Association, clashed with the image community leaders hold of the city as a model for tolerance and diversity.
The black officers charged they were denied career advancement opportunities and disciplined more harshly than white officers as part of a pattern of racial discrimination within the department. About one-sixth of Cambridge’s 300 police officers are minorities.
Kathleen Allen, a commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, expressed guarded optimism. “If it can work in Cambridge, we can certainly look at whether it can work in other places,” she said.
But Allen noted that the Cambridge Police Department has been the subject of complaints about bigotry since the 1970s. They include an account of a 1975 event, which officials have denied, in which a white officer allegedly dressed in a Ku Klux Klan white robe with his gunbelt visible and, flanked by other white officers, confronted minority recruits entering the station house.
In 2000 there was actually a public hearing in Cambridge where dozens of citizens aired their experiences with, what they thought was, racial profiling by the Cambridge PD. Interestingly for the Gates-Crowley incident, the charge of disorderly conduct factored into the discussion at the hearing. Again thanks to the Globe Oct 22, 2000:
Sporting a cowboy hat and leather jacket, Delanot Bastien, the co-owner of a Somerville real-estate company, was shopping in the Bread & Circus store in Fresh Pond one evening last March when he noticed a Cambridge police officer following him.
The officer, working on a pay-detail for the store, stopped Bastien as he left the store. According to Bastien, the officer told him he looked suspicious.
“He confronted me in a demeaning manner,” Bastien said in a complaint he filed with the Cambridge Police Review and Advisory Board. “I had the distinct impression that he was singling me out, that I was the target of `racial profiling.’”
Residents spoke of being stopped and questioned by police while walking down a street or driving a car. Several said they had been arrested as a result. Nearly all spoke of the indignities of being stopped, they believed, because of their skin color. Generally, they stressed that their stories were not an indictment of the police department as a whole, but of several individuals on the force.
In particular, they noted that police targeted groups of young black men.
“You are harassed for no reason. It is still the case today,” said John Youte, a youth worker employed by the city.
He and others talked about the white youth who congregate in the so-called pit area near the Harvard Square MBTA station. Young blacks, several said, would be told to disperse.
“I say, `Heaven help you if you have teenagers who are young
black men, because at some point you are going to have to deal with this,’” said Valerie Conward after the meeting. Conward’s 18-year-old son was among several young people who were arrested during an altercation last year at the Jefferson Park housing complex in North Cambridge.
Police were called to investigate a domestic violence complaint at the complex. Residents said police overreacted as a crowd developed. Residents said officers yelled at 20 to 30 young people who lived in the complex, telling them to disperse and go home. Police officers said the youth “swarmed” them.
Conward’s son and two others were charged with disorderly conduct but were found not guilty during a four-day trial in July.
Youte also described an incident three years ago when he was walking down Prospect Street on his way to wash clothes at a laundromat. He was stopped by a police officer who wanted to know where he was going and what was in the bag he was carrying over his shoulder.
I could go on…but I think it is at least clear that Cambridge PD has not been an historical oasis of racial harmony up until this incident, whatever this incident was. Attorney McDonald should apologize and Cambridge PD unions should get a smarter lawyer, or maybe just a more honest one. If your lawyer is going to assert a clean historical record on race relations (while calling out the President of the United States), it really better be true. Otherwise, oops, you’ve just opened the door to correcting that falsehood and introducing into the conversation all kind of things that you don’t want to be talking about and maybe even have little or nothing to do with today’s Cambridge PD. Attorney McDonald was the first person I’ve seen to publicly bring the historical record of the Cambridge PD and race into this, it’s unlikely he’ll be the last.